In their much-talked-about Harper’s magazine essay, “Why Are We in Ukraine,” Benjamin Schwartz and Christopher Layne provide a coherent and convincing case against U.S. involvement in the war in Ukraine. They argue that U.S. foreign interventions and geopolitical meddling in pursuit of global hegemony and dominance that went well beyond NATO expansion were responsible in part for Russian president Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine.
Schwartz and Layne suggest that Washington is fighting a proxy war, and a “decidedly hot” war—as opposed to a cold one—in Ukraine. They refer to the U.S. involvement there as the “most intense and sustained military entanglement in the near-eighty-year history in the competition between the United States and Russia,” with weapons provided by Washington inflicting casualties on Russians “directly or indirectly,” and with America “edging close to direct conflict” with Moscow.
Yet notwithstanding all the many ways in which the two depict and criticize U.S. policy in Ukraine, the historical analogy they seem to employ by implication—that of Vietnam, given that the title of their essay recalls a 1968 speech by President Lyndon B. Johnson entitled, “Why are we in Vietnam?”—is misplaced for a very simple reason: unlike that war in Southeast Asia, where close to 60,000 American service members had lost their lives fighting, there are no American troops engaged in combat in Ukraine. Nor are Americans fighting in Ukraine in the same way that they did in Iraq or in Afghanistan over the past twenty years. They aren’t fighting there at all.
A case can certainly be made—in the same way that U.S. post-Cold War, anti-Russia policies, in particular, the expansion of NATO and the support for Ukraine led eventually to the current war there—that American policies of providing diplomatic, military, and economic aid to Kiev could, at some point in the future, create the conditions for direct U.S. military intervention, and perhaps even to direct nuclear conflict with Russia.
Certainly, if and when Ukraine is invited to join NATO—a big and conditional “if”—the United States would then be committed to sending troops to help protect that country from outside aggression. This is in line with how we will soon be committed to defending Finland or, for that matter, other sovereign states like Montenegro. Some Anti-interventionists criticize those commitments, but these enjoy bipartisan support on Capitol Hill and don’t face any major public opposition.
Moreover, a case can be made that America’s support for Ukraine, even if it doesn’t join NATO, could be extended and yet not draw the United States into a military conflict.
In a way, the opponents of the Biden administration’s Ukraine policy recall the leading members of the foreign policy establishment who in 1948 opposed then-President Harry Truman’s decision to recognize the new state of Israel. They argued that American support for the Jewish state could prove to be costly for Washington in the long run.
They lost that debate then. But in retrospect, they were right that the long-term support for Israel would prove to be costly for the United States. Yet at no point in the seventy-five years of close cooperation between Washington and Israel has America been drawn into a direct military intervention in the wars between the Israelis and the Arabs—or with Soviet Russia, the former patron of Egypt. The sole exception that has proven this rule is the brief nuclear close call during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
If anything, despite the high costs of the relationship, U.S. public and congressional support for Israel has remained solid all those years, even at the height of the oil embargo that the Arab energy-producing states imposed on the United States to punish it for supporting Israel during the Yom Kippur War.
The point is not that Schwartz and Layne are wrong in their criticism of U.S. policies towards Russia and Ukraine. Rather, it is that, unlike the long-term response to U.S. interventions in Vietnam or Iraq, the American public—and by extension, Congress—is apparently willing to sustain U.S. entanglements abroad as long as American boys and girls are not fighting there and their costs don’t involve many American casualties.
Indeed, studies conducted about public attitudes toward U.S. military interventions abroad have confirmed what is probably common sense: that there has been a direct correlation between the rise in the number of American casualties in those wars and public support for U.S. involvement in them. If anything, with the end of the draft and the rise of a volunteer American military fighting American wars, and with more soldiers surviving battlefield injuries, the public seems to be more tolerant of costly American military interventions, even in the face of American casualties.
Otherwise, how can one otherwise explain what amounted to American public apathy as U.S. direct military intervention in Afghanistan lasted for two decades, with close to 2,000 American servicemen killed and more than 20,000 injured? And when was the last time that Congress debated the presence of close to 30,000 American service members in the Korean Peninsula seventy years after the war there had ended?
Moreover, notwithstanding the rising “inwardist” public attitudes in response to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, these conflicts haven’t dulled support for military involvement, at least according to a recent survey from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. The surveyors found that, instead of seeing a public that is shrinking back from getting involved in the world, “especially when there’s an ally involved, we’ve actually seen somewhat of an increase in support for using the military.”
Some public opinion analysts have, in general, suggested that the public has supported the Biden administration’s policies in Ukraine, including the economic sanctions imposed on Russia and the aid provided to Ukraine, but remain opposed to sending U.S. troops to fight in that country—something which President Joe Biden has insisted will not happen during his presidency.
From that perspective, it’s doubtful that by recounting the history of post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy—which antagonized the Russians and has been central to Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine—the arguments made by Schwartz, Layne, and others are going to have any impact on the public or congressional attitudes.
Instead, opponents of these policies need to explain why they oppose backing U.S. NATO allies against a potential Russian threat and providing support to a friendly sovereign nation invaded by a foreign aggressor.
One should not really expect mounting public and congressional opposition to American assistance to Ukraine, a relatively democratic nation with people who “look like us,” when Washington has been providing a corrupt Middle East regime, Egypt, with over $50 billion in military aid and $30 billion in economic assistance since 1978.
A Ukraine that continues to be seen by America as a nation fighting for its survival against a U.S. adversary is more likely than not to continue to benefit from U.S. assistance—not unlike Israel, which, with $236 billion in military and economic aid, has become the largest recipient of American assistance.
Critics of the Biden administration’s Ukraine policy, therefore, face a major challenge in trying to change public and congressional attitudes as long as the United States itself is not drawn directly into the fighting there.
It would probably make more sense for these critics to focus on how to reorient American policy towards Russia and create a new balance of power in Europe when the war ends, thereby ensuring that the conflict doesn’t remain frozen like in the Korean Peninsula. If that were to happen, then people seventy years from now might be forced to explain why the United States remains in Ukraine.
Dr. Leon Hadar, a contributing editor at The National Interest, has taught international relations at American University and was a research fellow with the Cato Institute. A former UN correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, he currently covers Washington for the Business Times of Singapore and is a columnist/blogger with Israel’s Haaretz.